The Sculpting of A Tradition

Discover the story behind Will Rogers’ immortal connection to the Texas Tech campus.

Written by: Gretchen Pressley

with Monica Higgins and Lisa Du Bois Low
Will Rogers, dressed and ready for the game. Will Rogers sits atop his favorite roping horse, Soapsuds. The statue stands 9’ 11’’ tall and weighs over 3,000 pounds. Photo by Artie Limmer.
The man responsible for inciting excitement on campus before football games is often seen wrapped in red crepe paper or sporting a crisp bronze ensemble for everyday Kodak moments with graduating seniors. But unlike the Masked Rider and Raider Red, this 3,000-pound symbol of school spirit has a hard time making a personal appearance at football games. Will Rogers and his horse, Soapsuds, immortalized in a nearly 10-foot tall statue (9’ 11” to be exact), stand just inside the entrance to the campus on East Memorial Circle. The statue’s inscription reads “Lovable Old Will Rogers on his favorite horse, Soapsuds, riding into the Western sunset.” And Lovable Old Will has surely found a permanent place in the hearts of all Red Raiders. “I think when you see the statue wrapped in red that first Friday of the football season, it gets you so energized,” said Chris Snead, associate vice president of the alumni association. “You know it’s time for the games to start.”

Who was Will Rogers?

Will Rogers was a famous stage humorist and trick roper in the 1920s and 1930s. Born in Oklahoma, Rogers spent time branding cattle on the Waggoner Ranch in Vernon, Texas. In the 1930s, he became familiar with Texas Tech through Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon G. Carter, his friend and first chairman of the Texas Tech board of directors. After speaking at a Lubbock school auditorium on October 29, 1926, Rogers discovered that Texas Tech wanted to bring its full 90-piece band to the game against Texas Christian University in Fort Worth the following Saturday and lacked only $200 of having the neccessary funds. Rogers donated the $200 because, according to the Fort Worth Start-Telegram, " Rogers wants Fort Worth to see a 'real West Texas band' and hear some real West Texas music." Rogers was killed in a plane crash in 1935. At the time of his death, Rogers was the nation's most widely read newspaper columnist, in the form of his daily "Will Rogers Says" telegrams and in his weekly column; his Sunday night half-hour radio show was the nation's most-listened-to weekly broadcast; and he had been the nation's #2 movie box office draw in 1933 and #1 in 1934, ranking 2nd at the time of his death only to Shirley Temple. The outpouring of national grief at Rogers' death was said to be the greatest such national mourning since the death of Lincoln. Among the many tributes to his memory is the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City named in honor of Rogers' love of travel. “The irony of Will Rogers is that he died in a plane crash and they named an airport after him,” Snead said.

Honoring a Friend

Will Rogers and Soapuds Electra Waggoner Biggs, a nationally known sculptor, was best known for her life-sized bronze "Into the Sunset" commissioned by Amon G. Carter after Rogers' fatal airplane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska in 1935. Trivia: In 1959, the president of Buick Motors named one of their luxurious Buick models "Electra."
"Into the Sunset," originally commissioned in 1936 by Carter, stands in front of the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. The life-sized bronze was created by noted sculptor Electra Waggoner Biggs whom Rogers met during his time on the Waggoner Ranch. To further honor his friend's memory, the Amon G. Carter Foundation donated an exact replica of Rogers and Soapsuds to Texas Tech in 1947. “This statue will fit into the traditions and scenery of our great western country,” Carter said at the dedication ceremony of the memorial held on Feb. 16, 1950. “Will Rogers felt at home in the Lubbock area. His statue is a befitting monument to your students and faculty.” Two other castings of Biggs' original work stand at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Ok., and at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas. “When Texas Tech went to the Cotton Bowl a couple of years ago, fans who stayed at the Anatole actually 'painted' the local Will Rogers statue red,” Snead said.

Into the Sunset (or Not)

According to legend, horse and rider were to be faced towards the west, placed on what was then known as “Soapsuds Pavilion East Memorial Circle.” However, this placement resulted in the posterior of the horse pointing towards the center of town. This caused such an outcry from the townspeople that the entire statue was supposedly rotated 23 degrees to the east, aiming the horse’s rear toward Texas A&M. “The rear of the horse does face A&M,” Snead said. “I don’t know if it was done on purpose or by accident. But as far as I’m concerned, it was done on purpose.”
Will Rogers and Soapuds Will Rogers and Soapsuds are dressed and ready for the game. Photo by Artie Limmer.
Despite its unusual commentary on a fellow Texas college – or perhaps because of it – Will and Soapsuds have become an integral part of school spirit during football season. Beginning in the 1950s, the statue has been routinely "dressed" in red the Thursday evening before the big game in a ceremony called "Paint the Campus Red." Today, the Saddle Tramps keep the tradition alive by wrapping Old Will before every home football game. “It takes 10 guys about two and a half hours,” Snead said. “They use about 20 rolls of red crepe paper. When they are done, they circle Will and sing the Fight song and the Matador song. Then they decorate the rest of the campus with streamers and flags.” Rogers and Soapsuds have also been wrapped up in black crepe paper to mourn tragedies such as the death of Waggoner Biggs, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and to commemorate Sept. 11.
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Camping, Red Raider StyleRaider Red Revealed!President’s SelectLighting up a Texas Tech Tradition Sources: Andrews, Ruth Horn (1956). The First Thirty Years: A History of Texas Technological College 1925-1955. Lubbock, Texas: The Texas Tech Press. Rushing, Jane Gilmore (1975). Evolution of a University. Austin, Texas: Medrona Press, Inc. Center for Campus Life Davis, Alvin. Retired Administrator of Ranching and Heritage Center. Story produced by the Office of Communications and Marketing, 806-742-2136. Photo of Electra Waggoner Biggs courtesy of Waggoner Ranch.